Theft of Xenon headlights

From the Boston Globe 2/26/2004
Left in the dark Audis, Nissans being stripped of high-tech headlights By Peter DeMarco, Globe Correspondent, 2/26/2004
Don Lufkus of Roslindale was typing at his computer one quiet Friday night last month when a loud and ominous "CRACK" rang out from his driveway.
Looking out his bedroom window, he saw two young men standing in front of his prized Audi S4, each holding a round object in his hands.
"I see the two kids, then I look at the car, and I don't have any headlights," Lufkus recalled. "I'm like, `What the hell?' "
Car stereos are ancient history, and airbags are old hat. As Lufkus discovered, xenon headlights, those super bright headlights with a bluish tinge common to many high-end cars, are the coveted automobile item nowadays. Car thieves have been swiping them in increasing numbers across Boston, selling them on the black market for a fraction of their $540 list price, and leaving unsuspecting car owners with repair bills in the thousands.
With the right tools, thieves can steal headlights off two models in particular, Audi S4s and Nissan Maximas, in under a minute, auto industry specialists said. The headaches for car owners last a lot longer.
Victims typically pay $500 or $1,000 deductibles, lose the use of their car for weeks to the repair shop, and worry that after all the expense they will be vandalized again.
"It's a huge problem," said Richard Poillucci, owner of Automotive Specialties Inc. of Hyde Park, who has replaced headlights for Audi owners from the South End, the Fenway, Back Bay, Brookline, and Roslindale in recent months. "Originally we thought it was just a fluke. But I'm seeing on an average week four or five that have been hit."
Headlight thefts were first reported a few years ago in Florida, where thieves were pilfering Porsches of their xenon, or high-intensity, discharge lights, which are three times more powerful than halogen lights,
and far more expensive. Halogen light bulbs cost about $14, according to auto repair shops. The thieves installed the xenon lights in other cars, such as older Hondas. The trend was seen last summer in New Jersey and on Long Island in New York, and last fall in Boston.
Boston police said they are aware of the problem: In the South End last month, police arrested several suspects who allegedly possessed stolen xenon headlights. But officials could not provide figures on the number of xenon headlight thefts in the city this year.
Glenn Greenberg, spokesman for Liberty Mutual Group's Boston office, said his office has seen an increase in the number of reported thefts. "I don't have a hard number for claims, but it certainly is a noticeable amount," he said. "We're seeing it in Boston and the Greater Boston area. There have been some incidents in the Framingham area."
MBTA parking lots in Hyde Park and Readville have also been hit, though authorities have arrested a suspect they believe was responsible for all seven thefts there.
While experienced thieves make off with headlights fairly quickly -- Lufkus could not catch the youths who stole his headlights -- novices have ravaged car hoods, fenders, and windshields, requiring weeks of repairs and astronomical bills.
"I just finished fixing a 2004 Audi. They actually cut the [headlight] wiring harness that was incorporated with the airbag system. This was a $10,000 headlight theft," said Alexander D. Haddad, a manager at Automotive Specialties. In some cases, owners have been robbed not once, but two or three times.
"I was away at a conference when it happened the first time in September," said Heikki Nikkanen, 33, of Jamaica Plain, whose Audi was vandalized in his driveway. "I went through the hassle with the insurance company, I didn't have my car for three weeks, and with the deductible I was out $1,000. Then it happened again in December. The same exact thing. I think it's the same guy, frankly. He knows where I live."
Nissan, responding to thefts of 2002 and 2003 Maxima headlights, recently launched an identification program with the British firm, DataDotTechnology, in which car owners in the Northeast, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, can go to their local dealers and have small chips affixed to their headlights. Individual vehicle identification numbers are printed on the chips, allowing law enforcement officials to recognize stolen headlights in automotive chop shops.
Nissan has also redesigned its 2004 Maxima models to make it much more difficult for a thief to extract the headlights, a DataDotTechnology official said.
Doug Clark, spokesman for Audi of America, said the company is reviewing xenon headlight thefts and is weighing several options on how to address the issue. The Audi S4 is the most targeted of its models because xenon headlights are standard equipment. They are optional on the A4, and sometimes thieves mistakenly remove non-xenon headlights from unlucky A4 owners.
With no devices available to better secure xenon headlights to Audis, though, owners have been left scrambling to find other ways to protect their cars.
Nikkanen bought a car cover, installed a $600 radar-based alarm that goes off if someone comes too close to his car, and had his landlord install better lighting.
Neal Rantoul, a Northeastern professor, said he now parks his car in public garages with the front-end out, so that his headlights are in public view and a degree safer.
Andrew Malgieri, 35, a South End computer engineer whose headlights were swiped last month, said he's been searching in vain for a more secure spot for his Audi S4, which was vandalized in the parking lot behind his home.
"There just isn't any garage parking available in the South End," he lamented. "For me, I do a lot of traveling to Vermont and New Hampshire. Having all-wheel drive is pretty important for my safety. I love my car. It's a great car. But now, I've thought about selling it."
Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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